Wine Tasting in Italy – a Short Guide
When planning our two-week trip to Tuscany, we knew that we’d be keen to do some wine tasting, along with enjoying the beautiful countryside and quaint medieval towns. But we hadn’t really looked too much into it until we arrived in Italy.
In Australia, wine tasting is a pretty straightforward affair. You turn up at the winery, follow the signs to the cellar door if they have one, taste a few wines and maybe buy a bottle or two if you like them. If the winery has a restaurant as many of the larger ones do these days, you might head there afterwards for lunch. Sometimes you’ll have to pay a tasting fee but most of the time that will be reimbursed if you make a purchase.
Fresh off the plane from Africa, having recently spent a few days wine tasting in Cape Town with a similar process to Australia’s, we kind of expected that wine tasting in Tuscany would go down pretty much the same way. However, as we discovered, the Italians like to do things differently.
If you’re heading to Tuscany for wine tasting it’s best to understand how things work before you get there, so here’s what we learned along the way.
The Types of Wine Tasting
Generally speaking, there are three ways of tasting wine in Italy. For want of some better terminology, I’ll refer to these going forward as Wine Experiences, Enoteca Tasting and Australian Style Tasting.
There seem to be two main types of wineries in Italy, small ones that aren’t open to the public and larger ones that are open and offer a range of wine experiences.
What’s a wine experience? Well, it can be anything from simple food and wine pairing, all the way up to a three-hour degustation tasting and a tour of the vineyard. One winery we visited even offered helicopter flights over the estate, courtesy of the owner’s son-in-law!
The most common type of wine experience is the food and wine pairing session, where one of the winery’s staff will take you through a tasting of several of their wines, accompanied by one or more courses of food. Many of the wineries also make their own Balsamic Vinegar which will often be part of the tasting. The ones we tried were amazing.
During both of the wine experiences we did in Tuscany, our hosts not only explained the origins and style of each wine but also taught us how to taste the wines correctly as opposed to just drinking them. They explained how to hold the wine glass, how to swirl the wine to aerate it and how to tell the quality of the wine by its appearance. We were already familiar with most of this but it was nice to have a refresher.
Sometimes your wine experience will include a tour of the vineyard or its buildings, together with a history lesson about the estate. For instance, on our visit to Castello di Verrazzano, we learned about the family that first owned the property, including their adventurous ancestor, Giovanni da Verrazzano who discovered New York before being eaten by cannibals in Guadeloupe! Many of these vineyards are centuries old and some have been in the same family for generations.
Make sure you book
Both of the experiences we took required booking ahead. When we visited in April we were able to book the day before. Most of the larger vineyards let you book online but if you prefer to make your reservation over the phone, they all speak very good English.
Consider Getting a Driver
You’ll usually end up drinking a fair bit of wine during your wine experience. In both of the ones we did, we tasted around six wines. They also give you decent sized pours.
We had a rental car and drove both times. That meant that as designated driver I needed to watch how much I drank. Because the wine was paired with food and because the tasting stretched over a couple of hours, I was still able to try most of the wines. Still, it is definitely something that you should be wary of because Italy has strict drink-driving laws (of course you should watch what you drink regardless of the laws).
One couple we met had booked a driver to take them to the winery and then back to their accommodation afterwards. While they did pay a hefty premium for it, it also meant that they didn’t have to worry about how much they drank. So, it’s something to consider.
While wine experiences are quite a lot of fun and an opportunity to learn a bit more about the region’s wines and history, they do take up a fair bit of your time and they don’t come cheaply. If you’re short on time or cash, you probably don’t want to book an experience every day just to try some more wine. That’s where Enoteche come in.
An Enoteca is essentially a wine bar where you can try a variety of different wines from either the region you’re in or all around Italy, depending on the size of the bar. In Italian, the word Enoteca literally means “wine repository”, which is a pretty apt name for these bars. The plural of Enoteca is Enoteche.
We visited a couple of Enoteche during our tour of Tuscany. The first was at the wine museum inside La Rocca in San Gimignano and the second was at Enoteca Falorni in Greve in Chianti. La Rocca was focused purely on Vernaccia based wines which is the variety of grape that is exclusive to the San Gimignano region. Enoteca Falorni, on the other hand, had over 100 wines to try from all over Italy and over a thousand for purchase!
Larger enoteche such as Enoteca Falorni will also offer food (such as tasting platters) to enjoy with your wine. We easily passed a couple of hours at Enoteca Falorni just eating, drinking and soaking up the atmosphere. It helped that the weather was pretty miserable outside at the time!
Self Service Wine Tasting!
Perhaps our favourite part of these enoteche was the way you served yourself a glass of wine. They give you a wine glass and a small plastic card with a chip on it. You insert your card into a machine that houses several different bottles of wine. You then choose what size pour to give yourself. Sizes range from a small taste through to a full glass of wine. The price for the different pour sizes is shown on a screen above each bottle. Of course, the prices also varies with the quality of the wine.
This amazing wine-tasting machine made it very easy to taste a variety of wines without assistance. Enoteca Falorni has several of the machines placed all around its vast underground hall; you are almost spoilt for choice.
Depending on the enoteca, you’ll either get a pre-paid card with a fixed amount of Euros to use, or a post-paid card that records what you drink for payment later. In the latter scenario, the staff will hold your credit card behind the bar to create a tab.
We’ve noticed this style of tasting popping up in a few other places and we hope that it spreads. For example, in the old town in Riga, Latvia they have one self-serve bar for wine and another for beer. Their names are appropriately Easy Wine and Easy Beer. The beer machine in Easy Beer was especially cool. You could practice your bartending skills by pouring your own beer. The machine measures how much you pour rather and charges you accordingly.
Regardless of whether they are this high-tech, enoteche let you try a variety of Italian wines without visiting any wineries. You also don’t need a booking.
Australian Style Tasting
What I’m calling Australian Style Tasting is actually not limited to Australia. It’s the type of tasting experience I eluded to above. You’ll be familiar with it if you’ve visited wineries in California, South Africa etc.. The beauty of it is that you can do your tasting quickly, while still visiting the winery. You can also chat with staff there who will know more about their wines than the staff at an enoteca.
So can you get this sort of tasting in Italy? Well, you can but it’s not that common. We only visited one winery that offered it, Cantine De’Ricci, and it was actually their cellar in the middle of Montepulciano, rather than at their vineyard. Cantine De’Ricci does some of their fermentation in their cellar.
Before you do your tasting at Cantine De’Ricci, you first take a quick self-guided tour of their basement cellar. Its towering cathedral ceilings and enormous, decades-old oak barrels are amazing. Then you head back upstairs for a very casual tasting. Their wine was great and the gentleman who served us was very friendly and spoke excellent English. We highly recommend doing a tasting there.
What type of experience should you go for?
That’s a hard question to answer. If you only have a few days in Tuscany, I’d suggest taking a tour that includes a wine tasting experience. Alternatively, see if your hotel can recommend a company that will provide a private driver. If the winery is not that far away, you may even be able to take a taxi.
If you have more than a few days in Tuscany, I’d suggest doing one or two wine experiences. They’ll help you learn a bit more about the process and the types of wine on offer. After that, do the rest of your tastings in Enoteche.
There are plenty of accommodation options for wine tasting in Tuscany. You can use the search box below to search across all the major hotel sites. We use it all the time.